Center Stage Movie Review
In a brilliant stroke of summer event movie counter-programming, TriStar Pictures is opening this weekend a surprisingly satisfying sleeper called "Center Stage" -- about the competitive world of a prestigious ballet academy -- that teenage girls are going to gobble up like so much candy.
Turned away from sold-out blockbusters, they'll drag their dates into this "Fame"-lite crowd-pleaser revolving around ballet students dancing their hearts out for a place in the fictitious American Ballet Company. They'll love the pretty, ingenuous heroine (Amanda Shull) learning to believe in herself and her ability. They'll love the two handsome dancers that vie for her heart. They'll love the spectacular, toe-tapping and beautifully staged production numbers. They'll leave the theater smiling dreamily and make a beeline for the Danskin store.
And although they'll never let it show, the guys will like it, too.
I'm a guy, but it's my job to admit I liked "Center Stage." OK, I loved "Center Stage." I'm not going to tell you it's a great movie. It's not. It's predictable, pandering and completely weightless. It lifts plot shamelessly from predecessors like "The Turning Point" and "A Chorus Line." But it's maddeningly appealing. I'd call it a guilty pleasure, but it's actually better than that -- if only by the narrowest of margins.
The completely adorable Shull, a member of the San Francisco Ballet, leads an ensemble cast made up partially of dancers making their acting debuts. Her dormmates at the academy are Susan May Pratt ("Drive Me Crazy"), playing a technically flawless dancer whose heart is elsewhere, and dancer-actress Zoe Saldana, whose character's talent is undermined by her attitude.
One of Shull's suitors is a cocky ballet superstar (played by American Ballet Theater primary Ethan Stiefel) whose cutting-edge choreography gives the establishment fits. The other is a sensitive fellow student played by Sascha Radetsky (also from the ABT).
A handful of other dancers have supporting roles (token gay guy, etc.), but the only actors of note are Peter Gallagher as the ABC's artistic director and Donna Murphy ("Star Trek: Insurrection") as a tough-love dance teacher.
Director Nicholas Hytner ("Object of My Affection") is smart enough to recognize that "Center Stage" has a bantam-weight storyline and doesn't try to turn it into anything more consequential. The romance is obliging, the cattiness is entertaining and just to make sure the core audience doesn't start sticking fingers down their throats to look like the 96-pound stars of the movie, he pays lip service to eating disorders. One ballerina under pressure from her overbearing stage mom is cured by the love of a handsome pre-med student. (I told you it was weightless.)
"Center Stage" often over-simplifies its characters and Hytner gets more genuine emotion out of his inexperienced actors when they're dancing than he does when they're called on to play real feelings.
But he understand his movie's strengths and weaknesses and adjusts accordingly. Most importantly he knows the money shots are in the dance numbers, which are appropriately spectacular and overproduced -- especially the 15-minute finale in which short-program productions are staged as part of the dancers' final auditions for The Company.
Except for a few appaulingly conspicuous slips, the marriage of cinematography and choreography in these scenes is as magical as an old MGM musical, and the phenomenal (if conventional) dancing runs the gamut from traditional ("Swan Lake," "Romeo and Juliet," "Stars and Stripes") to outrageous, as Stiefel's character stages a risqué ballet to fist-pumping tunes by Jamiroquai and Red Hot Chili Peppers that brings the on-screen audience to its feet and very nearly does the same in the movie theater.